THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Survey says: You pay for the drive to Crozet

On the subject of fences, at least, Robert Frost had it easy: all he had to do was walk along a stone wall once a year, replace the rocks that had fallen on his side, and listen to his neighbor pontificate.

Janie Perrone's situation was more complex. She and her neighbor on Brown's Gap Turnpike in Crozet wanted to mark the property line for such things as mowing, but in one area the boundary couldn't be determined. That's because the sight line to the irons was obstructed by a slope, a ravine, and trees– and a temporary marker from an earlier survey had been lost. 

Perrone called Roger W. Ray and Associates last fall. They were unable to give her an estimate over the phone, but faxed a proposal letter that stated the job would include "locating, verifying, and/or setting the boundary corners and marking the boundary line," as well as courthouse research. The hourly rate for a three-man field survey crew would be $125 an hour. 

Perrone signed the proposal on February 22 of this year and wrote at the top that she would like to be called the day before the work was scheduled, because she wanted to be present. On the day the crew was expected, however, no one showed up. 

Perrone wasn't home when the surveyors did come, but her husband, who was, told her he was "sure" they'd been there "less than one hour." Based on the hourly rate, Perrone expected a bill for roughly $125. 

Instead, it was for $245, which was not itemized. Perrone called Ray's office for an explanation and was told, she says, that she had been billed for 1.5 hours of the crew's time ($187.50) plus $40 for a research tech's time. (She later learned that there was also a $7.50 charge for copies from the Albemarle County clerk's office.) When she objected that the crew had been on the property for less than an hour, the employee explained that travel time is included when calculating time on a job. 

In an April 11 letter to Ray, Perrone wrote, "I am not degrading the value of your company's work in any way. Nor am I attempting to avoid paying for the work I asked to have performed." Instead of paying the company's total, however, she would pay only $125– the amount she considered fair. 

"Please note that this is equivalent to a full hour's work," she added, "and not merely for the 45 minutes the crew was actually here. This amount should more than cover the crew's work." 

Ray disagreed– so strongly that he returned her check with his letter, in which he explained that a crew's billable time includes not just the actual survey, but gathering data to prepare for the field work and traveling to the property. 

As to the latter, he wrote, "It is my belief that all land surveyors charge for driving time." When I spoke to Ray, he was adamant on this point and described the practice as "standard for the industry." 

I called three local firms and asked whether they charged for travel time. One said yes, one said only when driving to– not from– a site, and one said it was included in a set fee that isn't itemized. 

I also spoke with an employee in Ray's office, Gwen, and asked why the crew hadn't done the work on the day Perrone had been told to expect them. She explained that work on another job had caused the delay. Apparently, the field crew isn't expected to notify the office when that happens; this is probably fine in most cases, since homeowners don't need to be present during the survey. In Perrone's case, however, a call would have been nice. 

In the end, Perrone paid her bill in full. Good fences may make good neighbors– but figuring out where they belong can be quite an undertaking. 

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.